I finally got to listen to the various components that I'm interested in, except the receiver. I got to listen to the Paradigm Monitor 9s, JM Labs Cobalt 815s(just for comparison), Anthem MCA-5, Rotel RB-985 mk2, Rotel RSP-976 as a surround preamp, and McCormack RLD-1 stereo preamp for comparison.
The first setup I listened to was The Paradigm Monitor 9s with the Anthem/Rotel amp/preamp setup. The CD player used was an Adcom GCD-750. I was immediately disappointed with the sound as it sounded very "closed" and grainy(I don't know how else to describe it). There just wasn't much atmosphere at all, and sound was pretty muddled. I thought it might be the Paradigms, but changing to the JM Labs did little to improve the sound. It was a tad clearer/cleaner, at the expense of a noticably weaker bass. The JM Labs are also about $1K more expensive.
I then changed the Rotel RSP976 to the McCormack as I suspected that the Rotel was causing the problem. I couldn't have been more right. Immediately the sound quality improved EXTREMELY significantly, and this is to my untrained ear and as well as my dad's ear. I never thought a preamp could cause such a big difference. I always thought it was the speakers and power amps that are more important.
I kept the McCormack and switched from the Anthem to the Rotel 985, and the sound quality didn't change significantly. However, I noticed that the Rotel had a slightly more boomy/muddled bass, while the Anthem, while not having as strong a bass, was clearer in the lower frequencies, and had a warmer sound overall.
Anyway, I think I've pretty much decided on the Anthem over the rest, because of its sound quality and price(SG$1700). The only other amp that comes close is the B&K Components 5125, which retails over here for SG$1900, but I haven't auditioned it. I'm not convinced that the extra $200 will improve the sound quality by much either, I think it will be better used for a better preamp stage.
Now I'm worried if my receiver choices(Denon AVR3801, Yamaha RX-V1000 or Sony STR-V555ES) will be able to keep up with the rest of my system...I'm pretty much limited to my budget
A64 2.5GHz, Chaintech VNF3-250, 2x512MB Kingmax DDR500, XFX 6800GT AGP, SB Audigy2 ZS, Seagate 250GB, SATA, Liteon 12X DVD burner, 16X DVD-ROM.